(The Last Ever) Dear Steven Moffat: Twice Upon a Time

Dear Steven,

When the moment came to let you go I broke down. “Twice Upon a Time” – your goodbye to all that and mine, left me teary and tired. Not because it was your final contribution to Doctor Who you understand, I was desperate to see you go for reasons I’ll be reprising shortly; no, it was the death of promise; the moment your era passed into history and any hopes we once held for it turned to Jodie Whittaker.

Peter Capaldi was a fine Doctor but he looked a broken man as he staggered round the console room, searching for profundities, only to realise his God was the writer of Chalk. The crags in his face, the shadows under his eyes, told the story of a man who’d dreamt he was a Time Lord, his childhood hero, and loved it. But now he was awake and conscious of the audience for the first time, though he’d sensed them often if your scripts are anything to go by. For the first time he knew he’d been the Doctor during a period of creative bankruptcy.

When you took over from Russell T. Davis I was one of many people who breathed a sigh of relief. You were going to adjust the tone, we thought; making it more reminiscent of the original series; a show that (usually) took itself seriously. And under your watch we fully expected, and for a short time received, a version imbued with the wit conspicuously lacking from the Davis run.

But, as we’ve discussed to the point of mutual disregard, your occasional contributions to the Davis era flattered your understanding of the series while hiding one crucial piece of information: you can’t write drama. That’s pretty fucking important on a show that needed to mature now it had gone through the pain of being re-established. It was like discovering my murder defence at the Old Bailey hinged on someone with no legal training but an encyclopaedic knowledge of Rumpole.

On your watch the show had better jokes but was loose and dispiritingly light, disinterested in dramatic payoffs that would lend weight and consequence to its best setups. Everybody lived, no-one we cared about died, and the reset button was pressed many thousands of times. Fuck, you even did it at the death, with Clara’s memorygram appearing to Capaldi’s Doctor despite a recollection of their adventures being detrimental for reasons both you and the audience have forgotten. Nothing mattered in your Doctor Who.

But most egregiously, your era double downed on tiresome self-awareness. How appropriate then, that your final story was closer in tone and content to your very first Who script, the Comic Relief spoof, “The Curse of the Fatal Death”.

The prospect of Capaldi’s Doctor meeting the First was tantalising but perhaps we should have known a real story, something plotted, perhaps with a memorable adversary who inadvertently made the importance of the Doctors’ role clear to both as each struggled to find confidence and purpose, was never really on the cards. Instead, “Twice Upon a Time” went with a comic conceit that embraced self-parody.

The First Doctor, an import from the 1960s in your brain, was saddled with archaic social attitudes, particularly toward women, that signalled he was to be remade as a vessel for playful nostalgia. The Twelfth Doctor, meanwhile, like some product of 2017, was embarrassed, and a fully paid up member of contemporary society. He dropped all the usual clangers – “spoilers” (in reference to there being a World War 2; perhaps the glibbest introduction to that conflict ever filmed), referred to his predecessor as “Mary Berry”, and name checked Dad’s Army. He even acknowledged that on your watch the whole show had become wearingly meta, noting in response to an alien compilation of his greatest grandstanding moments, “they cut out all the jokes”.

It was all very lip curling while being an absolute betrayal of both characters.

This is what we won’t miss, Steven – a lead writer who doesn’t understand the difference between the information the characters have and the knowledge the audience brings to them. The First Doctor is not a product of 1963 or indeed any period in Earth’s history, any more than the Twelfth. Both men travel extensively throughout time, come from an alien culture and have a perspective and understanding that transcends transient social attitudes. So it makes no sense that either should represent the eras in which their adventures were transmitted in our world.

You could, for example, have chosen to focus on the different temperaments of both versions (or indeed their similarities) but instead, for the sake of some easy gags, put a highlighter over anything that might casually differentiate two eras of television; something that makes no sense in-universe. I was half-expecting the Twelfth Doctor to explain the difference in TARDIS sizes to Bill by talking about aspect ratios. There is no question in my mind that this joke appeared in the first draft script.

Watching this reprise of Hartnell’s Doctor did indeed make me nostalgic, but only for a time when the internal logic of the series fashioned dialogue and forged plots, even if the character’s ignorance of the contemporary TV landscape was now, thanks to you, an affectation.

I’d love to talk about the story but once again, and hopefully for the very last time, there wasn’t one. The two Doctors (“snap!”) met, discovered a futuristic memory archive that gave form to its files, deposited a solider (inevitably a Lethbridge-Stewart) from Ypres who’d fallen through time back to the 1914 battle, so you could tick the Christmas blue box and have a depiction of the armistice, agreed life had meaning, so on balance they should probably go on, and the show ended.

And that, Steven, is all. All from you and all from me. I wish, following all those years of vigorous conceptual masturbation with Matt Smith – a period that must have left you feeling like a rusk, you’d hired someone like Jack Thorne to write a few meaty screenplays for Calpadi which could have been broken into parts. Instead, you broke him with Doctor Who fan fiction – often funny, sometimes fun, but rarely storytelling of quality that will stand up to repeat viewings. In short, you gave your audience of YouTubers too much of what you thought they wanted and not nearly enough of what the show needed.

Your legacy? A failure to instil storytelling principles that a future showrunner would find hard to reverse. In short, your stewardship has made Chris Chibnall both possible and (if internal BBC reports are to believed) desirable. Can you imagine Netflix or HBO hiring Chibnall to spearhead their most popular exports? No, me neither and that’s the heartbreaking point.

Chris and Ms Whittaker will continue without us, Steven – new blood splashing into the open mouths of an audience that’s forgotten more than we ever knew about what made Doctor Who great.

I hope one day, despite the acrimony between us, and me rubbishing your work for the past 7 years, you’ll accept my invitation to invite me to your place, and we can put the past behind us and watch the show together; maybe bond over a mutual contempt for Chibnall’s broad tastes, while indulging the lie that it was all so much better when you were in charge and Who was funny, if meandering and meaningless.

I’ve been asked what I’ll do now. Truthfully, I don’t know. There’s Star Trek: Discovery to sneer at of course, but what we had – well, that was special. Still, I’ll find purpose somewhere.

You see Steven, there are shows out there where creativity’s burning; where writers sleep and critics dream. Stories made of smoke and characters made of straw. Somewhere there’s a writer reappraising the work of John Nathan-Turner. Somewhere there’s incomprehension. Somewhere else, the tea’s getting cold.

Now if you’ll fuck off Steven, I have work to do.

Yours forever in time and cyberspace,

Ed

P.S: You don’t have Chris Chibnall’s address, do you?

The Complete Adventures in Space and Time Wasting

Christmas 2016:

Christmas 2015:

The Old Man and the C: 

The Clara Oswald Show:

Smith – The Dark Suit Jacket Years: 

Smith in his Pomp:

Deep Time:

Published in: on December 26, 2017 at 13:54  Comments Off on (The Last Ever) Dear Steven Moffat: Twice Upon a Time  
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